Weapons: Too Good To Replace


February 2, 2012: The U.S. Army has convinced Congress to provide the cash to upgrade all 45,000 M2HB 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-guns to the M2A1 standard. This upgrade makes the M2 easier and safer to operate. Congress is now convinced that this upgrade is a big deal because the M2 is one of the most effective weapons the army has, and any additional injuries caused by delays in getting all M2s modified would fall on those who refused to provide the cash (about $6,000 per machine-gun). The M2A1 upgrade includes design changes that eliminate the need to make head space adjustments. This has long been the one big flaw of the M2 as it was easy to do this adjustment incorrectly, which caused the machine-gun to fail when used, often injuring the gunner in the process. While the quick change barrel option was greatly appreciated the elimination of the head space hassles was even more welcome.

Fourteen months ago the U.S. Department of Defense began modifying 6,000 M2s. The M2A1 upgrade allows for quick barrel changes. Each barrel weighs 10.9 kg (24 pounds). There is also a mounting rail for scopes and a flash suppressor and fixed headspace (which makes the weapons easier to use). Two years ago, the Department of Defense also bought 8,000 more M2 machine-gun barrels (for $850 each). This M2A1 version is the latest upgrade for the M2 so far. Another 5,080 new M2A1 weapons are being manufactured.

With a maximum effective range of 2,000 meters and a rate of fire of about 500-600 rounds a minute the M2 can tear up vehicles as well as enemy infantry. The M2 weighs 38 kg (83.8 pounds), plus another 20 kg (44 pounds) if a tripod is used. Most M-2s are mounted on vehicles. Since 1921 about three million have been built.

The M2, nicknamed "Ma Deuce" by the troops, has been around so long because it is very good at what it does. Accurate, reliable, rugged, and easy to use many of the M-2s currently in use are decades old and finally wearing out. The army doesn't want to build new ones and wasn't sure it could do without the venerable, and very useful, M2. Efforts to develop a superior replacement have, so far, failed.

But the government keeps trying. Four years ago that the U.S. Department of Defense gave General Dynamics $9 million to try and develop a lightweight .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine-gun (initially called LW50, then the XM806) that works. The XM806 was supposed to be ready for troops use by 2012 but that has now been delayed a year, or possibly two. Designing and building a lighter and more effective 12.7mm machine-gun has been an elusive goal, and it's still not clear if the XM806 will pass muster with the troops. While lighter (18 kg/40 pounds) the XM806 has half the rate of fire of the M2 but is said to be safer to use and easier to take apart in the field for cleaning.

Actually, there have been many attempts to design a "new and improved" M2, and all have failed, to one degree or another, in one department or another. The basic problem is that the M2 is sturdy, reliable, and gets the job done to the satisfaction of the users. The XM806 is apparently going to try and get around this by designing a better recoil system and use modern electronic sights so that gunners can get more out of fewer bullets. Most combat veterans prefer the current rate of fire (7-8 bullets per second) to the slower (4 per second) one of the XM806. That attitude may change as troops get to use the XM806 in combat. They may appreciate the ability to get more out of the same ammo supply and deliver more accurate single shots and short bursts.

What the army is hoping to do with XM806 is not get an M2 replacement but a "good enough" lightweight 12.7mm machine-gun, for those situations where such a weapon is needed. SOCOM (Special Operations Command), for example, has some lightweight vehicles in the works that are too light to carry an M2 but could handle a lighter 12.7mm weapon. The army wants to have such a lightweight machine-gun for the troops in about two years. Meanwhile, the army plans to buy 40,000 new M2s.




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